(L-R): "AQERAT (We The Dead)" stars Howard Hon Kahoe, Daphne Low and TIFF 2017 Best Director Edmund Yeo.
It's not an easy feat making a film itself, even more so submitting your film to be watched by audiences and judged by the world's renowned film industry professionals at an international scale prestigious film festival, but that's exactly what Edmund Yeo did, and masterfully succeeded in.
As the youngest filmmaker competing at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival's (TIFF) Competition section who has then gone on to win Best Director, the panel of judges the 33-year-old Malaysian had earned the accolade from is made up of a jury panel headed by Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones. The panel also includes Chinese actress Vicky Zhao, Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi, French director Martin Provost and Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase.
Yeo's film in question that was submitted to the Competition section of TIFF and also simultaneously had its World Premiere is, "AQERAT (We The Dead)" starring Daphne Low and Howard Hon Kahoe. It is a thoughtfully provoking film following the journey of a desperate woman that gets involved in human trafficking and it simultaneously sheds light on the plight of the Rohingya people in Malaysia.
Howard Hon Kahoe and Daphne Low in "AQERAT".
Ever the active participant of the TIFF, Yeo also premiered the screening of his 70-minute documentary film called "Yasmin-san", about Malaysia's beloved late filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, a Crosscut Asia effort that features Malaysian actress Sharifah Amani among others.
Back in 2014, Yeo's "River of Exploding Durians" had also been chosen for the Competition section of TIFF while his short films have also been screened in previous years.
Cinema Online talks to Edmund Yeo about his career defining win and picks his brains on it.
Cinema Online: You have continuously participated in TIFF and had 'never given up'. In your personal opinion, what do you think you 'did right this time around' that the jury picked you as Best Director compared to the previous years?
Edmund: Actually it's a weird term to say "never given up" when it comes to film festivals, because it's not like a sports competition or a contest. Submitting a film to a film festival is really about giving your film a good showcase platform and putting it out there for a wide range of audiences, because film festivals are attended not only by the general public, but also fellow filmmakers, programmers from other film festivals and other industry people.
The submission and nomination process for film festivals, for example, isn't easy. For the main Competition, there were 1,600 films from around the world submitted to the festival, and 15 films were selected.
Because it's so difficult and you are competing against so many films from around the world, historically only two films from Malaysia were ever selected for Main Competition during the 30 years of the festival history ["AQERAT" and "River of Exploding Durians"].
Edmund Yeo receives his Best Director award from Reza Mirkarimi.
This was probably made possible because of local filmmakers of the mid 2000s like Yasmin Ahmad, Woo Ming Jin, James Lee and Ho Yuhang. They had their films in the (now abolished) Winds of Asia section then, thus they paved the way for someone like me to be invited to Main Competition.
There's no formula for "winning awards" because every year you are competing against different films and judged by different jury members. So it's hard for me to say "what did I do right" to win this award. I didn't make any strategic calculation to win anything since film is subjective. Just that compared to three years ago with "Durians", I became more confident with my craft, and I had more confidence in my cast and crew (along with Daphne, who was already in "Durians", my cinematographer Lesly Leon Lee whom I worked with since my first short film in 2008, "Chicken Rice Mystery", and team members I worked with before in previous projects) and just allowing everyone to be creative. Because to me, being a director is to direct everyone's creativity, and not being a dictator who wants everyone to mindlessly follow my instructions. So we just braved the monsoon and heavy storm in Kelantan and focused on making something good together. That was it.
Did you get a chance to see the other competing films this year?
Yes, I watched some. But we had a very heavy schedule. Aside from "AQERAT", I was also presenting my other film, a documentary called "Yasmin-san". I was essentially doing interviews and screenings for two films, not one. So unfortunately I only had time to watch a limited amount of films.
Do you think that the reception of your films/work is much more accepted/recognised in Tokyo than in Malaysia? Why is that?
This is hard to say. If you are referring to my award, the decision was made by jury members of different countries and backgrounds, so it's not just Tokyo. My works, like most films, have their supporters and also their detractors, either in Malaysia or Japan. The only difference is that Japan and most other countries have a long tradition of film festivals and arthouse cinemas, so many foreign audiences aren't exposed only to mainstream cinema, thus they are more accepting of films that are more contemplative, thought provoking and with a more deliberate pacing. In Malaysia, we grew up with mostly mainstream works in cinemas, thus the value of a film for a regular cinemagoer is measured only by its entertainment value.
Will there be a chance for Malaysians to see "AQERAT" at our local cinemas soon?
Yes, my producers are working on it.
Do you plan on participating at the TIFF again next year or any other film festivals for that matter?
If I can make a film by next year, sure, I'll send them to film festivals.
What are your upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
"AQERAT" and "Yasmin-san" will continue traveling to other film festivals after TIFF. ["AQERAT" will also go to the Singapore International Film Festival this November] Also, before flying to Tokyo for the festival I had shot half of my new film called "Malu". I will continue shooting the rest of the film soon. I've also been discussing some projects with some Japanese producers, but I can't talk about them yet.
Cinema Online, 06 November 2017